In 1948, Lafayette refused an invitation to the Sun Bowl because the bowl did not allow black players, striking a blow against college footballs silent segregation
Down the hill they came that night, almost a thousand of them young and white and furious about a man who was black. This was in November of 1948, and the students at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania were outraged. Some stormed the citys radio station demanding to be heard. Others marched into a local Western Union office where a telegram was hastily composed and dispatched to President Harry S Truman. It read:
Denied Sun Bowl game because we have a negro on our team. Is this democracy?
Long before Missouris football players promised a boycott in the name of racial tolerance, Lafayette broke an unspoken pact in early 20th century America by refusing an invitation to the 1949 Sun Bowl because the bowl did not allow African American players. Lafayettes halfback David Showell was African American. The schools president, Ralph Cooper Hutchinson challenged the accepted practice of the day and made a vow: if Showell couldnt play, Lafayette wouldnt play. And rather than turn their rage toward the college president for declining what would have been the schools first major bowl game, Lafayettes students instead did something unusual. They protested for their black classmate.
He was one of us, says Frank Downing, who was the schools quarterback at the time.
I think that could possibly be one of the earliest student civil rights demonstrations anywhere, says Lafayettes archivist Diane Shaw.
On Saturday, Miami will play Washington State in the 82nd Sun Bowl. The stands of the 51,000-seat stadium in El Paso will nearly be filled and CBS will broadcast the game nationwide. The majority of the players on the field will be black, but almost nobody there will know of the incident that helped to integrate what was once one of the countrys biggest bowl games, striking a blow against the silent segregation that dominated college football at the time.
In the late 1940s there were only five major bowls the Rose, Cotton, Sugar, Orange and Sun. Of those, only the Rose had allowed black players. Many of the bowl stadiums still had separate seating areas for whites and blacks. The Cotton in Dallas permitted Penn State to bring two African American players to the 1 January 1948 game, but at years end the Sun played on the campus of the Texas College of Mines (now Texas-El Paso) still deferred to a mandate set by the University of Texas system forbidding its schools to play against black players. Teams who did have African American players knew to leave them at home as to not offend their southern hosts.
But that world was collapsing. After the second world war, many colleges, including Lafayette, started admitting black students. Attitudes were changing around the country. People started to say: We shouldnt discriminate against them because we served in the military with them, says Charles Martin, a history professor at Texas El-Paso and the author of several books on race including Benching Jim Crow: The Rise and Fall of the Color Line in College Football.
When Showell enrolled at Lafayette in 1947 he was one of only two black students at the school. But he immediately gained respect on campus because he had been a pilot in the war and trained with the famed Tuskegee Airmen. Downing, the teams quarterback, says the players understood the important of his role in the war and often peppered him with questions abut his missions.
How many guys did you kill with the bombs? the players would ask.
Ah, knock it off, Downing remembers Showell forever saying. They just put me in the plane and I dropped the bombs.
He was 24 in 1948, and that made him slightly older than his teammates. He also had a maturity that was different from many college students. His great-nephew Shaun Showell says this came from Davids war service, but also his childhood outside Philadelphia, where his father worked at the Corinthian Yacht Club, tending to the ships of some of the areas most famous families. Shaun Showell also remembers his grandmother saying the family went through a lot of disrespectful things growing up.
Showell was well-liked by the Lafayette players, who called him Davey. Downing found him to be smart, thoughtful and easygoing. He appeared to fit in well. Campus publications at the time call him well-liked. Downing cant recall anyone complaining about Showells race, accepting him as a friend and teammate at what was then an all-male school.
He was a heck of a running back, Downing says.
Behind Downing and Showell, the Lafayette Leopards were especially good in 1948, going 7-2 and attracting notice from the Sun Bowl committee, who Martin says, was looking to give the bowl a broader national reach by including more northern schools. In extending the invite on 19 November, the bowl committee didnt know Lafayette had a black player. When notified of this, the committee said Showell would not be allowed to play.
Four days later, the team met in a room to discuss the bid. Downing remembers one of the captains standing up and saying: We cant come if we bring Davey, but we can go if we dont bring him. The captain then asked for the team to vote. But just before they did, Showell stopped them. He said he had faced discrimination his entire life and was accustomed to it, and he didnt want to be the reason the players missed a chance to play in the Sun Bowl. He then said he would step out of the room and let the players vote without him.
That was the kind of thing Davey would do, Downing says.
Downing says almost every player voted to decline the bid. Historical accounts, including a story in the Lafayette Alumnus from December 1948, says the team voted unanimously to accept the offer after Showell told the players to do so. In some ways the team vote was irrelevant, because the same day the faculty voted to turn down the offer. Later that day, Lafayettes athletic director, William Anderson, sent a wire to the Sun Bowl committee rejecting the bid. He did not give a reason for saying no.
The students were stunned. Despite their previous standing as a national power, Lafayette had never been to a major bowl game. Why would the school turn down such a fantastic opportunity? The Lafayette Alumnus reported that several students began to demonstrate in protest. They gathered around a pile of sticks prepared for a bonfire that was to be lit before their game the previous week against rival Lehigh. Rain had cancelled the bonfire, but the sticks remained and were dry The students set them ablaze, drawing more students who wondered why the bonfire was suddenly roaring.
Soon, nearly 1,000 students more than half of the 1,900 enrolled at Lafayette marched toward Hutchinson home to demand an explanation. A band was thrown together and it played Deep in the Heart of Texas. According to the Lafayette Alumnus, the students filled Hutchinsons yard, trampling shrubbery and climbing trees. When he opened the door they chanted: We want Texas!
Patiently, Hutchinson told the students the bowl bid had been declined because Showell would not be allowed to play. He said Texas state law did not allow black players to play in the Sun Bowl stadium. The Lafayette Alumnus report says the students started to shout things like: Why cant Showell play? and We will play if they let Showell play!
Anderson the athletic director was dispatched and he went into Hutchinsons house to call Sun Bowl committee chairman CD Belding. Anderson asked Belding to give Showell a waiver, pushing the halfbacks war record in the hope of getting Belding to agree. Belding still said no. A few minutes later, Anderson walked outside and told the students the Sun Bowl would not let Showell play.
The students stormed out of Hutchinsons yard and toward the town. Its interesting they did this 360 turn after interrupting the presidents dinner, Martin says. After barging into the radio station and firing off telegrams to Truman and journalist Walter Winchell, they called a school-wide meeting for the next day where again nearly 1,000 students passed a resolution opposing racial discrimination.
I think our students were rather heroic in this, Shaw says.
Maybe this was the first type of thing where black players were treated equal to white players, Downing says. I guess it was more a statement that all Americans are created equal.
Lafayette never did go to a bowl game. After 1949, the school began to de-emphasize football. It was no longer big enough to compete at the highest levels. Even when football rose again at the college in the 1980s it was in the lower tier Division I-AA. But Lafayettes stand against the Sun Bowls racism had an impact on college football.
A wall was falling. Martin describes the arrangement in which northern schools respected southern intolerance as a gentlemans agreement. For decades, teams in the north and west felt they had no choice but bench their black players when travelling to the south. By 1950 more and more schools were refusing to do this.
Lafayette was not a major earthquake in the sports world but it was just another reminder that the times were changing, Martin says.
El Paso moved before most of the rest of Texas. The College of Mines played too many teams from Arizona and New Mexico places where black players were accepted to continue to operate in a racist past. Eventually, the school changed its name to Texas Western and in 1966 their basketball team became the first with an all-black starting lineup to win a national championship.
We like to depict ourselves as being better than the rest of the state, which is true unless you consider instances like this one, Martin says. We like to project ourselves as this progressive city on the (Mexican) border even if its exaggerated a bit. The earlier events are described as: Well, there were some problems, but
Years later, a Boston-area folk singer named Terry Kitchen visited Lafayette with his father, who had graduated from the school in 1952. As he looked around, Kitchen noticed a photograph on a window by he gym. In it, a group of students milled about the presidents yard, a few in a tree. Beside the photo was a brief description of the stand Lafayette took and the student protest against discrimination. He was intrigued. He gathered information on the Sun Bowl and the invitation Lafayette declined in the name of David Showell.
Kitchen was moved. In 2004 he released a song about the story. He called it: The Greatest Game They Never Played.
So give up a cheer for the Leopards
Not for the touchdowns they made
But for standing together
To win the greatest game they never played
To win the greatest game they never played
He has played the song at a few Lafayette events and has even consulted with Shaun Showell before writing it. But David Showell never knew someone would write a song about him. He graduated from Lafayette and eventually enrolled in law school at the University of Wisconsin. To make extra money he drove a fuel truck during school breaks.
Sixty years ago Wednesday, on 23 December 1955, he was making a delivery south of Philadelphia when he swerved to miss striking a car. The truck rolled over, crushing him The man who survived bombing missions during world war two, inspired a college to protest, and helped revolutionize a game, died at 31.
He was sort of your ideal-type guy, Downing says.
The kind that brought a student body riot in his name.